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Pinellas Animal Service fraught with dysfunction, discipline problems

LARGO

They must care for abandoned, lost and dangerous pets with a staff that has shrunk by a third in four years.

But even allowing for job stress, Pinellas County Animal Services bears the marks of a department plagued by dysfunction and anxiety.

More than a quarter of the department's 47 employees have been disciplined during the past five years, an unusually high rate compared to other county departments, according to a St. Petersburg Times review of hundreds of pages of personnel records.

The problems range from routine workplace inefficiencies and paperwork mistakes to deadly negligence.

Over the past 12 months, a dozen employees were written up for violations — one short of Public Works, which has six times the number of workers.

Some of those employees cited low morale and favoritism, but almost no one disputed the accusations in their files.

Workers received warnings for taking too much unscheduled leave, for failing to take safety precautions and for profane tirades.

But other violations were much more serious:

• Animal care assistant Cheri Deal, a 10-year employee, pulled the wrong cat to be euthanized in 2010, leading to a one-day suspension without pay. The reprimand was one of three she received that year. She also failed to have a cat that bit people tested for rabies, causing three residents to get vaccines at the county's cost. Her third reprimand came after she took a cell phone picture of a man who came in wearing baggy pants with his underwear visible and showed it to a co-worker.

• Tyson Youts, then an animal control officer, was reprimanded after he put four kittens in a trap on a hot day to try to lure their mother. One kitten died and two others had to be euthanized after they suffered heat exhaustion. The 2007 incident came eight days after Youts received training on hyperthermia. Youts, now an adoption coordinator, later was reprimanded for poor paperwork and leaving work without approval.

• After impounding a raccoon that bit a 13-year-old Palm Harbor boy, animal control officer Catherine Rutenbeck was reprimanded after the critter got loose in 2008, placing the county at risk of paying for the teen's shots or care.

• When a dog got locked in a car overnight in 2009, animal control officer Noreen Callahan hit the snooze button instead of answering early morning calls, leaving a paramedic to deal with the dog. Questioned later by a supervisor, Callahan responded: "My bad — oops."

• With officers already thin, animal control officer Alaina Bible was reprimanded in 2009 and 2010 for watching Netflix during late shifts and working on the website of her family's side business, a home and lawn care company. County policy bans watching movies on the clock and requires employees to disclose outside employment. She was suspended a day without pay in 2010. Bible declined comment, but her husband Jim Dungan, a former co-worker who left last year facing layoff, blamed managers for playing favorites.

"It's only certain people, too. The other people, they're golden children that don't get touched," said Dungan, himself disciplined in 2009 and 2010 for taking unscheduled time off and backing a truck into a trailer.

• Tim Gray, an animal control officer, was suspended for three days without pay in October 2006 after a review showed he used his laptop wrongly — visiting lingerie websites. He was suspended again last year for pilfering bleach and washing his personal truck at the county carwash.

In his most recent job review in 2010, Gray was rated "very good" with above average productivity. His supervisor noted he was well dressed and punctual with "sound knowledge."

Good ol' boy system?

Some of the workers interviewed for this report said the agency charged with saving the county's pets needs healing of its own.

The pressure has reached the point where workers are seeking counseling under their health plans, said Youts, who mistakenly left the kittens in the heat.

"A lot of us use it. We need it, we should use it. It helps to grieve," said Youts, an 8½-year employee who received a "very good" rating in his last review.

Staff has decreased from 75 employees to 47 since 2007, making some workloads more burdensome even when the total number of complaints has fallen.

Animal control officers wrote 771 citations last year while investigating more than 17,200 complaints. The agency impounded more than 18,000 animals last year. Some were adopted, but most (11,000) were euthanized because of health or temperament.

"We are going to have mistakes made when you're handling the large volumes of animals with less time to attend to detail," said County Administrator Bob LaSala.

He and Animal Services director Dewayne Taylor acknowledged the morale problems and stress happening in departments across the county.

One measure: Anti-depressant drug prescriptions have increased, according to the county's health provider, LaSala said. He noted that rates for individual departments are not compiled for privacy reasons.

However, Taylor said discipline was used to improve employees for the sake of taxpayers — and nothing appears out of hand internally. Taylor could recall only one employee being dismissed in recent memory.

Taylor said he has talked to supervisors after hearing concerns they were meting out discipline inconsistently or unfairly. But, he said, many workers really don't know how others are disciplined.

Youts said he didn't have any complaints about management, lauding Taylor. But Dungan, the former worker, said he thinks managers disregard some complaints to protect themselves.

"They're going to write it off as a disgruntled employee because that's the way the county is. … They know nothing will get done about it," said Dungan, echoing others with beefs over discipline.

Workers like animal care assistant Candice Stacks say they worry that speaking out publicly could cost them.

"It's hard to go to work every day knowing I'm busting my a--, but we're not getting anything to show for it," Stacks said.

She has a name for what's happening in the department: "good ol' boy system."

Taylor said the discipline reports don't reflect the good the department is doing.

The department has received a state award for its cat adoption program in 2008. Mary Taylor earned the Shelter Supervisor of the Year title, and Cindy Mazzaferro received the Animal Caretaker of the Year award from the state association.

Mazzaferro also made the discipline list for a profane altercation with a co-worker in February.

Anger and unease

Denise Wilkinson went to Animal Services for help with her dog Sunny.

The management at the Clearwater woman's apartment complex had ordered her to get rid of her dogs because Sunny chased a cat and both dogs exceeded the 100-pound weight limit.

She found a home for one, but not Sunny, a 3-year-old Rottweiler-mastiff mix.

She took Sunny to the shelter March 2.

Wilkinson said she read on the county's website that a dog would be kept up to seven days, but shelter workers told her she'd need to pick him up in two days.

Still, she signed papers relinquishing control of Sunny, but told workers she'd be back in time.

But hours later, that same day, Sunny was euthanized. Workers, including Stacks, deemed him "unadoptable due to temperament."

Stacks insists that Wilkinson told her that Sunny killed a cat and wasn't good with children. Sunny, nervous, also tried to bite her and two other workers, Stacks said.

"I told her straight to her face, since your dog killed a cat, it's not going to pass the exam," Stacks said in an interview. "She said, 'Okay, I can't do anything about it.' "

Wilkinson disputes that. For starters, she said Sunny merely chased a cat.

"For them to say he was vicious and aggressive to the workers? I know my dog. He was scared," said Wilkinson, who said Sunny always was calm around her three children.

The county changed its website to say there are no guarantees when animals are surrendered.

Taylor acknowledged the miscommunication in the case, but said it's wrong to treat Animal Services like a boarding kennel.

Stacks acted correctly and "had no real reason to report it incorrectly," Taylor said.

Stacks has been reprimanded twice since 2008. Once, she called a boss "the worst (expletive) supervisor." Then, in January 2009, she was cited for substandard work, texting people and failing to clean dog kennels.

Stacks acknowledged the coarse remark, but said others weren't punished for similar behavior. She denied not cleaning the kennel, saying she and colleagues care about animals.

A few weeks after Sunny's death, however, Wilkinson got a letter from Animal Services.

It was a form reminding her to take care of Sunny's rabies shot.

David DeCamp can be reached at ddecamp@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8779. Follow him on Twitter with @decamptimes.

Pinellas Animal Service fraught with dysfunction, discipline problems 05/30/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 31, 2011 10:38am]

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